Thursday, March 25, 2010

A purely legal question

For several months now, I have wanted to write a post comparing the Roman Catholic Church to the Lutheran and Episcopal denominations, which in many ways were forms of "Reformed Catholicism."

I wanted to compare Vatican II's solutions to certain problems with Martin Luther's solutions to the very same problems, 500 years previous.

I wanted to write about Henry VIII's reasons for reforming the church, which went well beyond, "He wanted a divorce."

I wanted to write about both his and Luther's love of the sacraments and about their reverence for the best aspects of the Catholic liturgy.

I wanted to discuss the differences and – more interestingly – the similarities in the theologies of the Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal faiths.

I wanted to write about the benefits of running a church democratically without sacrificing the theology.

I maybe even would have gotten a little bold and written about the commonly held opinion that allowing female and married priests would, as a whole, produce a healthier crop of priests.

I wanted to write about all these things.

But I saw something in the paper today. Something disturbing.

And so now I have a new question. It is not a religious question, or a theological question, or a dogmatic question, or a spiritual question. It is nothing more and nothing less than a legal question.

Today – Thursday, March 25, 2010 – I looked at the news. And I read about the sex scandal in Wisconsin. And I read about Pope Benedict XVI's role in both keeping the matter away from the police and in putting the offending priest back in contact with minors.

When a similar issue came up with Cardinal Law, here in Boston, there was a straightforward legal course to be taken. You have a crime. You have an individual, in this case the Cardinal, who may or may not have borne some legal responsibility for said crime. You have a court proceeding to arrive at a verdict of either guilty or not guilty. Standard legal procedure in the United States or, indeed, most any modern nation.

This procedure never happened. Cardinal Law got sent to the Vatican, a state with whom the United States does not have an extradition policy. No trial.

Now, whether or not the Catholic Church decides to punish a wrongdoer or reward him – in this case, with a prestigious position at one of Rome's greatest churches – is its own business. Another alternative would have been to send him to a monastery in rural Wyoming, where in time he might have grown to understand the seriousness of his crime. (Hard to understand such things when you work in a patriarchal basilica and have 14 servants.) They made their choice. Fine. That is not my point here. My question is purely legal.

Here is my legal question:

I live in America. I have to follow American law. You live in America. You have to follow American law. Even if you don't live in America, if you bear responsibility for a crime that takes place here, you stand trial here and, if found guilty, will probably serve your sentence here – if the prosecutors are successful in physically bringing you here in the first place.

But here is an organization, the Roman Catholic Church. The organization is a non-profit corporation that receives and disburses money on our soil. The corporation has filled out the necessary paperwork so that it is allowed to conduct business on our soil. But members of this corporation – including the Cardinals and, sadly, now the Pope himself – have been implicated in crimes for which they cannot be prosecuted. If you think Cardinal Law was unprosecutable, how prosecutable is the Pope going to be?

Now the legal question:

Why is this corporation allowed to do business in the United States?

I'm actually dead serious. This isn't a hoax; it's an honest legal question that I have. Corporation X follows American laws. It is allowed to do business in America. Corporation Y breaks American laws but then shields itself from prosecution. It will thenceforth not be allowed to do business in America.

I would like to know, then, why this particular corporation is allowed to do business in a country whose laws it is not required to follow.

If there were ever a court hearing to determine if this corporation should be allowed or disallowed to transact business in the United States, I would hope that the prosecutors would request the corporation to explain the following phrase:

Huiusmodi causae secreto pontificio subiectæ sunt.

This sentence may be translated as:

"Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret."

The phrase appeared in the 2001 epistula, De Delictis Gravioribus ("On More Serious Crimes"). The author of this epistula was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later promoted to Pope Benedict XVI.

I will leave you this evening with a story, one of the saddest ones I ever heard.

A pastor with whom I once worked told me this story. It was about a friend of his. This friend was abused by a Catholic priest. Several decades passed. Finally, after holding in this secret for so many years, he found the courage – who knows how hard it was – to tell his mother what happened.

She slapped him across the face and exclaimed, "Don't ever let me hear you talk about a priest that way again!"

Thankfully, that generation of parents is dying off. The new generation is better educated and asks more questions. Questions might arise about the transubstantiation, or about original sin. The Catholic theologians can fend off those questions. But how will they fend off the legal questions? What will they do when these young Catholics start asking, "How can a corporation break our laws, evade prosecution, and still be allowed to conduct business here?" That is the legal question that I am now asking.